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An Irritated Public & A Question Left Unanswered
Febraury 2024 Town Board Meeting
February 23, 2024

C
ommissioners at February’s Town Board Meeting introduced a streamlined format and heard from a disgruntled Oriental native. The Board’s two freshmen Commissioners got into a heated discussion about cutting employees from the town, with little left resolved.

town hall sign All Commissioners and the Mayor attended February’s meeting: Mayor Sally Belangia, Commissioners Charlie Overcash, Allen Price, Frank Roe, Breena Litzenberger, and Bonnie Crosser.

Also in attendance were Town Manager Diane Miller, Deputy Finance Director Tammy Cox, Public Works Director Andrew Cox, and Officer Bill Wichrowski. There were twelve attendees in the audience.

There was no January Town Board meeting, but a workshop discussing upcoming Town Projects.

TownDock.net records all meetings, and writes the report from that recording. All referenced emails are at the end of the article.

Addressing Rumors, Dodging a Question
February’s meeting started with public comments from Oriental native, Mary Ellen Ham, directed at a Commissioner she did not name.

I Suggest They Resign
“It’s been called to my attention all over town – all I hear is criticism about what’s going on out here. And I’m tired of hearing it…”

Ham is referring to the financial liaison position created by Commissioner Bonnie Crosser, and approved by a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Breena Litzenberger opposing. Commissioner Charlie Overcash argued against the position, but voted for it at the end.

The position was created against both the legal advice of the Town’s lawyer and the North Carolina League of Municipalities. In Crosser’s own words, from an email she sent to other Commissioners November 27, “Ms. White [and Mr. Davis] advises against following this course of action, as it may cause issue with the Town Manager. Ms. White’s recommendation would be to request copies of the review documents.” Ms. White is with the League of Municipalities. Mr. Davis is the town’s lawyer, Scott Davis.

In the December Town Meeting, Crosser argued there was no law against the position. Mr. Davis informed her through email and by phone that that North Carolina laws were permissive – they say only what is allowed.

All that additional legal discussion comes at a cost – and additional $700-ish to the town, according to the December invoice from Mr. Davis’ firm.

Ham continued. “We’ve got a state auditor that comes here, and we also have a lawyer. And if they want the job of being the lawyers and auditor, then they should apply for it. Otherwise, they should quit criticizing these people… and let them do their job.”

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Mrs. Ham speaks out about rumors in town.

Ham did not state anyone specifically, but went on to say, “If they don’t like the position of what they’re doing here as a commissioner, I suggest they resign.”

The Financial Liaison Reports
At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Bonnie Crosser gave her first report as financial liaison.

Opening with why the position was put in place, Crosser said there had been one in 2011 – a holdover position from the town’s previous form of municipal government when Commissioners functioned more as department heads and interacted directly with staff.

Crosser reiterated that the Town is on the Unit Assistance List and was told to put in a review process. This is partially true – the town is on the Unit Assistance List for the Water Plant, as a result of a late audit due to software and COVID issues with auditor personnel. Also, the training Commissioners attended at the end of 2023 said it would be prudent to audit the Water Fund more frequently than once a year. In creating the financial liaison position, Crosser decided to expand that instruction to include all of the Town’s funds.

In her report to the Board, Crosser stated she’d reviewed three months of statements and “I have not found any fraud.” She went on to say she liked the way the mileage spreadsheet was done and had learned a lot from it.

“As far as my findings, I need to speak to the [Town] Manager. There’s a couple of issues, but they’re not fraud. They’re not improper. They’re just a couple of management issues.”

Crosser then asked for questions.

Assuage My Fears
Commissioner Litzenberger said she, like Mrs. Ham, had “heard rumblings and rumors about, this is a way to cut town staff.”

She continued, saying the ‘rumblings’ had made her “really nervous, because I think our town staff is overworked already. I’ve seen a change in the office [staff] – just, a little hyper aware and a little jumpy because maybe they feel like they’re being watched and micromanaged.”

Litzenberger then referenced the training all Commissioners receive when elected, which she and Crosser had recently attended. “They talked about the commissioner’s position and how we’re kind of visionaries. So I think it’s really important to keep in mind that we should not be digging into day-to-day activities for our staff.” She passed out a copy of a picture she took during the training, reiterating what the photo showed.

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A slide from required training for Commissioners, illustrating Commissioner responsiblities. Provided by Commissioner Breena Litzenberger to the Board during the meeting.

Litzenberger then said to Crosser, “So, I would love for you to assuage my fears.”

Crosser said the liaison description had been given to the Town Manager, saying it states the position description and the historical issues the town has had. “It’s not just the Unit Assistance List, there’s other issues the town has had. That the auditors have called out in the audited statements. I’m not talking to the staff other than thank you for handing me documents.”

Crosser went on to detail her interaction with the documents and the questions she asked of Town Manager Miller. “I have not communicated – I cannot be held responsible for rumors and gossip.” Litzenberger tried to interject that she understood, but Crosser continued, raising her volume. “I don’t talk to the staff. I haven’t said anything….so if I’m gonna be responsible for rumors and gossip and what everybody’s talking about – I’m not clairvoyant. I, I, I can’t do that.”

Litzenberger said she wasn’t holding Crosser responsible, but if this is how residents are feeling, then the Board needs to address it. “If we have an agenda as a liaison, that we’re looking for discrepancies, or we’re looking for things to cut town staff, that’s something that the residents would like to know.”

Crosser replied, “Please do not continue to say cut town staff. The reason this liaison is here is to look at the documents and make sure we have receipts for all credit cards, make sure our bank balances, our reconciliation account for funds. We have an average balance of $850,000 and they’re asking just to look at – I’m not talking about staff. All I’m looking at is historical data.”

Crosser’s requests for historical data has put a burden on the town’s office staff and the completion of their projects. Her document requests for December and early January came with a one or two day notice, prompting the Town Manager to place a one week time frame to produce the requests.

From an email to Commissioner Crosser from Town Manager Diane Miller dated 1-29-24: “With month/qtr/year end billing due out Wednesday, and other items requiring our attention, we will need a week to prepare the requested documents for review. We would like to establish this time frame as ‘normal’ from request to delivery.”

Discrepancies That Aren’t Discrepancies
After Commissioner Litzenberger’s questions, TownDock reporter Allison DeWeese asked about the historical discrepancies Commissioner Crosser listed with the financial liaison duties. Crosser read them out, citing late audits, an insolvent Enterprise fund, and a deficit incurred in the Capital Project Fund by the town for $490,270.

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The liaison position description produced by Commissioner Crosser. All documents requested are available for any town resident to review and all listed historical compliance issues were discussed in public meetings.

The insolvency of the Enterprise Water Fund was a result of upgrading systems with the American Rescue Plan Act funds (from COVID), incurring depreciation where there had not been any before. Prior Commissioners were reluctant to raise water rates, however did so last year as a step towards mitigating the water fund issue. Issues that were discussed in Town Hall meetings before the public.

Regarding the audits, Crosser said the late audit in 2021 was due to “changeover and finance personnel within the audit firm and COVID related issues.” The late audit in 2022, Crosser read out, “reason being citing software issues.”

The Capital Project Fund deficit occurred in 2020. “Deficit will be funded by awarded grants, proceeds forthcoming. Town will review best practices to assure that this does not occur again,” Crosser read. “So basically they spent money that wasn’t funded,” she said.

DeWeese asked Crosser if the audit cited what the $490,270 was about. “It was a capital project.” DeWeese asked which Capital Project. “It was Whittaker Point.” Commissioner Crosser is referring to the Whittaker Point Restoration.

That project was funded – by more than $3.5 million dollars in grants.

Commissioners at that time directed the Town to begin the restoration work and spend funds – knowing the grants would reimburse what the town spent.

“That was brought to Commissioners in a meeting,” said DeWeese. “So even though it appeared on the audit, Commissioners were made aware of it.”

Crosser spoke over her, saying “We spent money we didn’t have” as DeWeese stated “We have to front the money before we can get it back. We know it’s coming in.”

DeWeese continued, “Yes, this is a discrepancy-”, Crosser again spoke over, “This is an audit issue.”

“It’s not some subterfuge, is what I’m saying,” replied DeWeese. “And presenting it as a discrepancy on a capital project…taking it out of the context of restoring Whittaker Point, with millions of dollars in grants coming to us and having to front the money – knowing it’s going to come back to us… that’s disingenuous.”

Mayor Sally Belangia quickly ended the meeting there by asking for a motion to adjourn. Commissioner Crosser did not respond further.

A Streamlined Consent Agenda
Commissioner Frank Roe asked that the Consent Agenda be made more like Pamlico County’s Consent Agenda, and include items that were often read and voted on without comment. Items such as resolutions, meeting minutes, and scheduling public hearings.

Consequently, February’s Consent Agenda included a number of items that were approved as a group. Those items are:

• Resolution 2024-02 Recognizing 125th Anniversary of Oriental
• Resolution 2024-03 Authorizing Ethics Training
• Minutes from January 25, 2024 Workshop
• Revisions to Chapter K- Ordinance
• Schedule Public Hearing for revised rezoning at 807 Broad St
• Schedule Public Hearing for School Use at First Baptist Church
• Resolution to Insurance Commissioner Causey
• Award Pierce Creek Dredging Bid to King Dredging, authorize Manager to execute the contract

Documents for the above are under the Consent Agenda link at the end of the article.

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The Board of Commissioners: Allen Price, Breena Litzenberger, Charlie Overcash, Mayor Sally Belangia, Frank Roe, and Bonnie Crosser.

Items of note:
Chapter K – Water Service Ordinance Revision updates the language to include recent changes in government departments, and removes and replaces Section 4 with information about the function of Oriental’s newly reinstated Water Advisory Board.

The Water Advisory Board’s first meetings were held in January without Water Plant Director Andrew Cox. Water Advisory Board liaison Commissioner Bonnie Crosser set the meeting date without consulting Mr. Cox – not knowing that he would be on vacation for the first meeting, and that Thursdays – the original meeting day – was a mandatory water testing day for Mr. Cox and he could not attend.

The board did not meet at all in February. They will meet March 8, the second Friday of the month at 9a in the large board room at Town Hall.

Public Hearing for Rezoning at 807 Broad Street Owners of the property housing the Oriental Deli also own the land behind it. The front half is zoned for commercial use, the back half is zoned for residential use.

They are seeking to rezone the R3 residential portion to a mixed-use commercial lot.

Initially, they sought to rezone the entirety of the residential lot, but discussions in the Planning Board and Board of Commissioners indicated it might not go through. Residents on Midyette Street, which backs up to the property, rallied before to oppose the rezoning – about 11 years ago under the previous owner.

There is an access road from the lot onto Midyette Street. And though the current owner says he is not interested in using that entrance, future owners would have the right to do so for commercial purposes. At the 2011 hearing, residents said they didn’t want commercial traffic on Midyette Street – a largely residential neighborhood. (The rezoning failed at the time, as the property owner dropped the application.)

Sentiments are unlikely to have changed in a decade, and Commissioners indicated they would side with the area’s residents.

Instead of turning the entire lot into a mixed use parcel, the application has been revised to move the line of the commercial property into the R3 zone – while still maintaining a residential area next to Midyette Street where commercial interests cannot be built.

A public hearing has been set for the March 5 Board meeting.

Oriental’s 125th Birthday
Ginger Barnett, one of the organizers of the 125th Birthday Celebration, asked for additional street closures for the celebration, and for the town to buy an ad in their Birthday Guide to help support the effort.

“Most of us made individual contributions to the efforts,” said Commissioner Bonnie Crosser. “I know I work for a local company that put in a full page ad.”

Commissioner Litzenberger suggested buying a half-page ad for $250. Commissioners agreed on the ad, and the street closures for the celebration.

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Ginger Barnett asks the Town to purchase ad space in the guide for Oriental’s 125th birthday.
Short Term Rental at 304 Main Street Approved
A request for a short term rental at 304 Main Street was approved by Commissioners. There were no neighbors, no police reports, and no other information given at February’s meeting or at the preceding Planning Board meeting showing that the Special use Permit Should not be granted.

New Payroll System – ADP or Paychex
The Town’s financial software will discontinue support for the system’s payroll integration in March 2025.

The Town is looking for another option, one that will integrate the town’s 30 years of finances (required by record retention guidelines), the payroll for each employee, and integration that does not require journaling.

At Commissioner Crosser’s suggestion, Deputy Finance Director Tammy Cox looked into payroll company ADP. Cox reported that she spent over an hour on the phone with an ADP representative, was only able to look into two of the financial modules the town would need, and the cost was already up to $5,000 for the two modules and a partial integration.

Additionally, ADP would not fully integrate with their system, will not input the historical finance data, and required every staff member to have either a desktop computer or company phone to clock-in for work. Right now, all staff share the computers.

There is the possibility of using journal entries instead of integrations. However Deputy Finance Director Tammy Cox said inputing multiple lines of data by hand opens up the town’s finances to human error – and a ding on their yearly audit.

Manager Diane Miller said, “The key here, my goal is to get her a module that does not require more work… we want something similar that does not add additional tasks to what’s going on.”

Dan Allen, member of the Harbor Waterfronts Committee had volunteered to look into PayChex – Allen spent his career working with payroll services and recommended it as an alternative at the January meeting.

Allen said PayChex came up around $1,800 a year, but they would need to talk with Edmunds GovTech (Oriental’s current payroll provider) about integrations.

Discussions for the payroll solution are ongoing.

Police Report
Officer Bill Wichrowski presented the report, and gave an update on speeding in town.

Officer Wichrowksi pulled over a speeder this month and they “ended up having drug paraphernalia and drug residue in their vehicle and we were able to recover it out of there.”

Wichrowksi also reported there had been a decrease in speeding in several zones. He cited Ragan Road in particular. “I don’t see as much speeding as when I first got certified…in a 15 minute span on Ragan Road, I got 10 people speeding.” Manger Miller interjected, “this week I only got three in a row.”

Wichrowski said the efforts are working in getting people to slow down.

Manager’s Report
• Going forward, the Town’s financials will be presented in summary format as requested by Commissioner Crosser in her role as Financial Liaison.
• The Comprehensive Land Use Plan public hearing is set for the March 5 Commissioner’s meeting. This has been before the Board multiple times, and sent back to add additional language.
• At a county leadership meeting, it was discussed that changing the municipal elections to coincide with the national elections may save money. If Oriental takes this route, current Commissioners will extend their current term from two years to three.
• The Powell Fund – a state fund that disperses money to municipalities for things like road repairs – has given Oriental an extra $5,000 due to a change in the algorithm. Oriental gets two disbursements a year. It’s unknown if this is for the entire year ($2,500 per disbursement) or just one of the two fund drops.
Pete Flood was appointed to the Planning Board, replacing member Tom Quigley who has become a part-time resident.

Auxiliary Board Reports
• Marsha Paplham of the Tourism Board said they are looking for new members for their board.
• Jim Blackerby of the Harbor Waterfronts Board thanked his board and the town for their quick response to the closing of the town’s dock on Hodges Street.
• Allison DeWeese of the Planning Board said they are continuing research on short term rentals in town and had forwarded several requests to the Board for their next meeting.
• Town Manager Miller filled in for the Tree Board, saying there is new construction on Neuse drive. The ditch there is not a drain, but a swale and will allow the water to flow around in into the drainage systems properly. The Tree Board is working with the owners to plant trees there that will use up the additional water instead of drowning in it.

Dates to Know:
The next Town Board Meeting will be Tuesday, March 5, 2024 at 8a.

Related Information
Commissioner Crosser Email Re: Advising Against Liaison Position, Nov 27, 2023
December Invoice for Town Of Oriental Legal Services, Dec 1, 2023
Town Manager Email Requesting a Week Notification, Jan 29, 2024
Email from Scott Davis About Permissive State Laws, Nov 27, 2023
February Agenda
Consent Agenda
Short Term Rental Special Use Permit
Manager’s Report
Oriental’s 125th Birthday Information
Planing Board Appointment
Police Report
Auxiliary Board Minutes

Posted Friday February 23, 2024 by Allison DeWeese


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